Young Conservative to become Colombia’s next president

He is poised to be Colombia’s youngest president in more than a century when he takes office in August.

Ivan Duque greets supporters after voting during the presidential run-off election (Fernando Vergara/AP)
Ivan Duque greets supporters after voting during the presidential run-off election (Fernando Vergara/AP)

A young conservative protege of a powerful former president has been elected Colombia’s next leader after promising to roll back a fragile peace accord that has divided the South American nation.

Ivan Duque captured almost 54% of the vote, putting him 12 points ahead of former leftist guerrilla Gustavo Petro in a tense run-off election that had appeared to be tightening in recent days.

In the end, the 41-year-old sailed to victory, promising to change parts of the accord with leftist rebels but not “shred it to pieces” as some of his hawkish allies had been urging.

Ivan Duque celebrates his victory with his running mate Martha Lucia Ramirez (Fernando Vergara/AP)

When he takes office in August, he will be Colombia’s youngest president in more than a century.

“I’ve come here to fulfil a dream,” Mr Duque said outside his polling centre.

Ivan Duque during a campaign rally in Armenia, Colombia (Fernando Vergara/AP)

“For Colombia to be governed by a new generation, one that wants to govern for all and with. One that unites the country and turns the page on corruption.”

The new president will inherit a country still scarred by five decades of bloody armed conflict and grappling with soaring cocaine production.

In his victory speech, he said: “The peace we all dream of demands corrections. So that victims are the true centre of the process and so that there is justice, reparations and no repetition.”

Former guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are struggling to reinsert themselves in civilian life in a nation where many people remain hesitant to forgive.

Vast swaths of remote territory remain under the control of violent drug mafias and residual rebel bands.

“Undoubtedly, for the peace process, this is an important test,” said Patricia Munoz, a professor of political science at the Pontifical Xavierian University in Bogota.

It was the first presidential election since the signing of the peace agreement ending Latin America’s longest-running conflict and was as much about the accord as it was deeply entrenched issues such as corruption and inequality.

Mr Petro galvanised young voters and drew millions to public plazas with his fiery speeches vowing to improve the lives of poor, disenfranchised Colombians.

Though he failed to catch Mr Duque, his more than eight million votes marked the biggest ballot box success for a leftist presidential contender in a country where leftist politicos were stigmatised over fears of potential ties to guerrilla causes.

He took his loss in stride, refusing to call it a defeat and saying that “for now” he and his supporters will not form a government — echoing the words used by socialist revolutionary Hugo Chavez following his failed 1992 coup against Venezuela’s government.

Gustavo Petro shows his ballot during the presidential election (Martin Mejia/AP)

Six years later Mr Chavez was elected president, setting the stage for a surge of the left throughout Latin America.

“I don’t think there is a single Colombian who thinks things are going well today,” Mr Petro said after casting his ballot with his young daughter in hand.

Colombia’s peace process to end a conflict that left more than 250,000 people dead is considered largely irreversible.

Most of the more than 7,000 rebels who have surrendered their weapons have started new lives as farmers, community leaders and journalists.

Last year the rebels launched a new political party and will soon occupy 10 seats in congress.

But the 2016 accord remains contentious and Mr Duque pledged throughout his campaign to make changes that would deliver “peace with justice.”

Through constitutional reform or by decree, he could proceed with proposals such as not allowing ex-combatants behind grave human rights abuses to take political office until they have confessed their war crimes and compensated victims.

The current agreement allows most rebels to avoid jail, a sore point for many. But Mr Duque’s detractors warn that his victory could throw an already delicate peace process into disarray.

Mr Duque is the son of a former governor and energy minister who friends say has harboured presidential aspirations since he was a child.

The father of three ago entered public service almost two decades as an adviser to then finance minister Juan Manuel Santos, who he will now replace as president.

Mr Duque later moved to Washington, where he spent more than a decade at the Inter-American Development Bank, first as an adviser for three Andean countries and later as chief of the institution’s cultural division.

It was during that time that Mr Duque forged a close relationship with former president Alvaro Uribe, the torchbearer of conservatives who is both adored and detested by legions of Colombians.

Mr Duque’s low-profile life as a Washington suburbanite came to end in 2014, when with Mr Uribe’s backing he was elected to Colombia’s Senate.

Seated beside his mentor in the opulent Senate chamber, Mr Duque earned a reputation as a like-minded security hawk who did his homework and earned the respect of colleagues across the political spectrum.

He quickly climbed the ranks of Uribe’s Democratic Center party, clenching the group’s presidential nomination just four years later.

Press Association

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